Zeb and Haniya – Bonding Pakistan with Bollywood again

September 13, 2009

Sunday, September 13, 2009
Aakar Patel

A pop band from Pakistan came to India last week. Zeb and Haniya are two girls who play the guitar and sing. They got the usual treatment Pakistanis get from our press: front page story in the Times of India (another inside), in the Indian Express, interviews with the news channels and with radio stations. They got invited to concerts, to Bollywood parties and were able to meet the film industry’s music directors and producers.

All of this was during just a few days in Bombay. Next week they will go to Bangalore and Delhi and much of the same will happen there as well.

Strangely, this has happened to them without anyone in India ever having heard their music. Their first album, Chup, has not yet been released here yet, though a live performance by them is available on an excellent website called cokestudio.com.pk. This level of enthusiasm for them was purely because of the fact that they are Pakistani. A pair of Indian girls who decide to form a band will not get this sort of coverage, nor will unknown bands from America or elsewhere. A second reason could be that they are Pakistani girls, and that is novel to us because we associate Pakistan mainly with bearded men.

Zeb and Haniya are cousins. They are Pashtun: Bangash from Kohat, a fact that did not register in India though it should have because one of our most famous musicians is also Bangash: the sarod player Amjad Ali Khan.

A third reason that they were received well in Bombay is that the reputation of popular Pakistani art — singing, writing, music — is high in Delhi and Bombay (south and east India don’t care because their cultures are different). Singers can walk into Bollywood pretty much by holding up their green passport. This is because Pakistanis bring something that not too many Indians have: a natural association with Bollywood’s culture, which is Hindustani or Indo-Persian.

Zeb and Haniya’s sound is urbane, very polished and orchestrated. Their writing is easy and comes from a comfort with the Hindustani language. And there is an intelligence at work. They said in a newspaper interview that in their music they had put an extra amount of ‘estrogen’. Estrogen is the female hormone, the opposite of testosterone. What I understood that statement to mean was that Zeb and Haniya made their music deliberately effeminate, to appeal to the desi male. That is strategic thinking.

They write their own songs and that is always a good thing. In their live performance, they have a duet with the classically trained singer Javed Bashir of Lahore. He has a brutally emotive voice and it is difficult to listen to him without your hair standing on end.

Indians first heard him when he came here with Mekaal Hasan’s band. They released an album called Sampooran and it was quite extraordinary. Nothing of that quality has come out of India in that particular style of music which fuses Punjabi and Seraiki lyric with Hindustani singing, and is set to modern arrangement with guitar and synthesiser.

The quality of musicianship was high with Javed’s singing, the flute playing of Lahore’s Pappu, and Mekaal’s arrangements and guitar-playing. It really is a world-class band, but does not have much of an outlet in Pakistan. Unfortunately, they signed up with a record label here that hasn’t succeeded in getting them too many concerts in India for whatever reason. Both the band and its audience have paid for this because it is difficult for us to access this kind of music easily.

A lot of India’s top popular musical talent goes into Bollywood because that is where money and fame may be found. But once these bands get there, their music must be reforged to align with filmy culture which is quite formulaic. While their work is excellent — and for most Indians music means Bollywood music — it means their original edge is eroded and they have no desire to revisit that because the money in Bollywood is so good. A singer of Bulleh Shah called Kailash Kher, unknown till seven years ago, now sings a song in almost every Bollywood film. He makes Rs10 lakh (one million) a concert and he sings every day of the week, with concerts around India and worldwide where Indians live. This leaves him little time to do his own music, though he has tried.

What has happened because of all this is that we have few independent bands singing in Hindi, though now there are some in the regional languages.

Pakistanis bring a little more individualism because they haven’t yet been fully commercialised.

There is another side to the treatment that Zeb and Haniya got from the press and that is what they got from the state. They were interviewed twice, and perhaps even three times, by the police who wanted to know why they had come.

This is part of our strategy where we make it difficult for Pakistanis to visit India. First this is done by making visas hard to get. Then it is done by restricting how and where one may come in and leave. It is pointless to say that we do this since Pakistan also does it — because if there’s one thing we dislike it’s being compared with Pakistan.

And then we go a step further and try to irritate the Pakistanis into not returning. This is done, at least in Bombay, by sending police to interview them, preferably around midnight. If we can succeed in irritating them into not returning, and if that is what we want, then we should continue this policy. But the problem is that the Pakistanis appear to be amused by our childishness. Many of these Pakistani bands are sophisticated and the press in India melted because Zeb and Haniya are quite urbane and know how to handle media.

So the irritation bit doesn’t seem to be working always. Another thing we should consider is that the amount of media that the bands get shows that the animosity the state has for Pakistanis is not shared by the public, or at least the press.

We think of ourselves as being a rising power, but we are unable to get rid of the pettiness which kept us down in the first place. And even if we are able to get rid of it at the top level — I do not think Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi waste much sleep trying to figure out how to fix Pakistan or Pakistanis — it does not translate easily on the ground.

One thing that has suffered because of these restrictions is popular entertainment in India.

Punjab state has only 2.5 per cent of India’s population but a staggering number of people in Bollywood are Punjabi, most of them from West Punjab. This is because their open culture is the one around which Bollywood has made its movies. Bollywood does have directors from other places, like Calcutta, and people like Salim-Javed and Amitabh Bachchan are from the Hindi heartland. But the dominant community of Bollywood is Punjabi. The Kapoors, Dutts, Sahnis, Malhotras, Chopras, Deols, Puris, Khannas, Roshans, Oberois, Aroras, Mehras are all Punjabi. And these are just the actors. Once we tally the writers — Gulzar is from Jhelum — the singers, the producers and directors, we can see that Punjabis by themselves are an entire entertainment industry. But what this means is that Bollywood is missing out on the talent of East Punjab.

Our greatest writer was from Lahore, Manto, and we lost him to Partition. There is no reason for us to inflict further damage on ourselves by depriving Bollywood of the stream of talent that appears to be on tap just across the border.

Pakistani singers and writers and actors must be encouraged to come over and work and even settle in India. We have a precedent for this: Nehru convinced Bade Ghulam Ali Khan to move back to India, and he did, because we need the best exponents of our culture and they need the audience. Mehdi Hasan and Ghulam Ali spent much of their career singing in India, or to Indians abroad.

It’s not strange to think of Pakistani artists who have a home in Lahore and another in Bombay, and we must encourage this.

The writer is a director with Hill Road Media in Bombay. Email: [email protected]

Source: The News